Thursday, January 16, 2020

AFTERTASTE AGENDA

AFTERTASTE

A quality present in the ending of a scene, chapter, entire novel, entire short story. A dramatic itch awaiting a scratch.

The quality manifests itself in dramatic emotions like question, interest, sadness, reconciliation, grief, sorrow, surprise; sometimes aftertaste from a particular scene evokes a mashup of one or more of these feelings.

Consider aftertaste as the writer's reward to the characters and readers for staying the course of the narrative. If the reader comes away from reading a scene with no feelings about it, the entire scene falls into question. 

NB: There is no room for neutrality in fiction. 

For the scene to earn its place, it must leave at least the aftertaste in the reader of wonderment at what will come next, to which character, and how.


AGENDA

The governing force that drives every character in every story.
Agenda represents what the character wants, becomes the armature about which the other traits of the character winds.  Think Scarlett O'Hara in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, then consider her every action in that narrative.

Agenda tells the character how to behave, sometimes in ways not yet clear to the character. The behavior alerts other characters--and the reader--to expectations and suspicions about future activity.

See agenda as the rabbit hole into which the lead characters tumble, as Alice did in her trip to Wonderland. Consider Macbeth in the opening scenes of the play named after him, ambitions covered by what he assumed to be his agenda of loyalty to King Duncan, then read on to see what happens after he got home to discuss his recent promotion with his wife.

Characters who don't want anything don't belong in a story. Even nameless characters have agendas. The crosswalk guard who delays the protagonist wants to get her charges, the school kids, across the street. The pizza delivery person wants a tip. No matter if they have no lines of dialogue; their behavior reveals their agenda, offers the writer the physical vocabulary and narrative tools to portray them.

Agendas in characters may be obvious or hidden, nevertheless they reside in what and how the character acts, thinks, and says.






Wednesday, January 15, 2020

ADVERSARY

ADVERSARY

All stories require adversaries in one form or another. The adversary is an individual or group whose interests conflict with those of the principal characters for whatever reason. These individuals often appear more likable than the principal character. No matter; the reader soon learns how these individuals will work tirelessly to prevent the principals from achieving their goals. 

Adversaries often take the form of circumstance, conditions, and conventions, thus aged adults in a youth-oriented culture (or the reverse spin), women with the temerity to run for office in a male-dominated society, any system, whether social/cultural, political, religious, which the principal characters of a narrative believe cannot be beaten.

Adversaries bear close relationship to antagonists and obstacles. 

If you do not have one in your narrative, you do not yet have a story.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Accelerant

ACCELERANT

A useful loan from firefighters, where an accelerant adds momentum and direction to a fire already in progress. Think of story as a considerable force, already in progress, then look for a potential fuel to enhance it. Characters such as Iago, in Shakespeare's Othello, Milo Minderbinder, in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and Rebeca Sharp in William M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair accelerate the forces of impending mischief in their respective narratives.  By its inherent, striated nature, social class offers the fiction writer opportunities to add momentum to narrative. Many of Thomas Hardy's novels use social class and its conventions to force characters to even more intense behavior. Hardy's Tess of the Durbervilles provides a significant example of accelerated dramatic force. Jude the Obscure emphasizes the potential for evoking forces that prevent a character from achieving a stated goal.
Settings and scenery offer yet additional chances for acceleration of narrative. Consider the details of Pip's life when he lives with his sister and brother-in-law in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. Compare them with the surroundings Pip encounters on his visit to the estate of Miss Faversham. For an instructive treatise on how the details of setting and scenery provide accelerant, consult Zadie Smith's White Teeth.

HINT: Let no character or character's agenda, no locale or object enter a narrative without a demonstrable potential for service as an accelerant.

Monday, January 13, 2020

ACTION, Revised Edition

So much in story depends on action, the movements between characters and, in many cases, the movements between the various aspects of a single character. Appropriate for the Revised Edition of The Fiction Writer's Handbook to begin with:

ACTION
Story begins with action. Someone in the present moment does something or is done to. The protagonist acts or is acted upon.
Shakespeare knew this for a certainty in the early 1590's.  Romeo crashed a party for the daughter of the sworn enemies of his family. Primary action. Of course you have only to look at the first meeting between Romeo and Juliette. Proof of the pudding for how much this first action-reaction sequence mattered to Shakespeare; he shifted the narrative for their first exchange from his customary blank verse to a perfect (Shakespearean) sonnet.
In The Dublin Murders, a 2020 televised mash up of two early novels by the American-Irish writer, Tana French, a detective is sent to investigate the murder of a young girl in the same locale where he was a victim as a youngster.
Story begins when readers are then motivated to await the consequences of actions.
To put a fine point on the matter, consider the process known as inertia. A body in motion tends to stay in motion while a body at rest continues its snooze. Each state is vulnerable to force, itself the personification of action.
When motion stops, story comes to a halt, takes on dramatic qualities such as introspection, recollection of past actions, and description, all associated with inaction. 
These qualities must earn their keep if they enter the narrative.
HINT:  Remember inertia. Readers have greater motivation to continue reading when the characters stay active.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Itch in the Publisher's Voice

The moment your body sends you an urgent itch message from some outpost of anatomy, a portion of your awareness goes to work forming a scratch response. Even if the offending itch flares up in the middle of your back under a layer of tee-shirt, sweater, and jacket, awareness begins to assess damage control, sends you an available source to defuse the itch.

You may have to contort to reach the itch site, seek out a tree trunk, door frame, or other convenient remedy, whereupon you heave yourself against the trunk or door frame for some significant rubbing. Sometimes there may be a person to whom you can state your urgent plea. "Please. My back. Scratch."

The moment your body sends you an urgent story message from some outpost of your imagination, a response similar to itch awareness broadcasts itself through your sensitivities. In notable similarity to the itch message, the story instinct wants to be dealt with, scratched, as it were, rendered under some kind of control.

Unlike the itch, which may be scratched in a matter of moments, the story notion takes on the presence of a pestering insect or a hungry mosquito. You will need some time--always more time than you at first allot--to scratch enough to restore your previous comfort.

Itches and stories pester you away from your more benign self. You are in effect practicing mindfulness on one or two story itches from years in the past.

"Time," a publisher says in a text.

Ah, you think. Time for a royalty statement.

"That, too," the publisher says. "Time also for a revised edition."

Publishers seldom, if ever, want revisions on published works of fiction. You have published a work of nonfiction and another of fiction with this publisher. There is no need for him to tell you he wants the revision on the work of nonfiction.

Thus early in the new year, not yet midway through January, while you have only a day ago scratched a short story itch to your satisfaction and have only the continuing buzz of a novel you are swatting at, another itch sends a scratch me message. You know for certain that this itch will require at least the better part of the coming year.

The first thing you will need to scratch this itch is the voice, the narrative tone in which this version will be told.  This means you must do something you have not done for much of your writing life--you must listen to the material--let it dictate how you will speak of it.

Let's say it's eleven p.m. or midnight. Your neighbor continues to host a loud party or play Sacre du Printemps at considerable volume. Do you appear at his door, knock, then politely inform him of the noise? Do you yell across the courtyard?  How will you proceed?

For some days to come, your subsequent entries here will reflect you, listening to the material, then responding to its behavior.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Story as the Writer's Unmapped Territory

Your first real-life--as opposed to reading-related--mentor died in 1983. Your second real-life mentor took her own life in 1986. The former brought you to enhanced awareness of the short form, the novel, and the stage play. The latter shared her experiences on the stage and in film, a gift that continues to pay off in each scene you draft of each short story and novel.

Your thoughts of the former often lead you to consideration of the latter; the reverse is equally so. The former had a voice that sounded like sandpaper being drawn over unfinished wood. When she and her husband left the Los Angeles area for what seemed to you the unfathomable leap to a new life in north central Tennessee, your contact with her was limited to long conversations about writing by telephone.

The voice of the latter had was crisp, precise even when tired or exasperated. When you once told her she had a voice well-suited for reading aloud, she was crisp and precise when she told you a trained actor should be able to convince a listener she was whoever she set out to be at the moment. At one point, she played for you a film clip of a role in which she portrayed a flirty Southern belle, a performance you'd seen years earlier, on the cusp of puberty and hyperalert to overt and subtextual sexuality.

Your thoughts of each of them today, thirty-odd years after their death, brought you aware of something so obvious to you now that you needed moments to wonder, aloud and to your inner self, how you could have needed so long to recognize.

The early years of your writing life, before you had any notion of the difficulty needed to get the ability you wished to hone, passed in the blur of you constantly writing, typing away on any of the many typewriters your father rescued for you from the bankrupt ventures he auctioned off for the referees in bankruptcy.  During those years, your goal was to get as many words down as possible, setting as your competitor rather than mentor the English poet, John Keats (1795--1821), whose work you admired to the point of envy. Most of all, he spoke to you through his poem:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books in charactery...

Long enough ago for you to have sired children, which you have not, and watched them sire children of their own. Of course imagined children exist in fantasy or fiction; they produce offspring only in speculations such as short stories and novels.  Long enough as well for you to have forged those unmapped routes from which your mentors bade you detour to find routes of your own ways. Long enough to come to terms with much of yourself as an outlier. Thus John Keats is no longer a rival; he remains one of your favored of the male poets.


Long enough for you to have read only yesterday a poignant essay by another favored writer, a novelist whose works took you deeper beyond admiration of her technique and into questions of your own visions of this hulking, lurching vehicle of Reality.  Long enough for you to have sprawled in a picnic field with Christopher Isherwood to demolish a splendid lunch made for you by the nuns at the Vedanta Convent in Santa Barbara, to be shared as you drove him to his home in the Santa Monica Canyon.  The basis of your discussion that day, Isherwood's long and heartfelt wrestling of a line from the Bhagavad Gita, "To the work you are entitled/But not the fruits thereof."  You took this to mean you'd better enjoy the work.  A neat, tidy man, Isherwood brushed hamburger crumbs from his linen jacket, then agreed. "One of the worst things is being paid for work you did not truly appreciate. We learn so many things by contemplating their absence."

The thing you learned today, all this time into the process, relates to your notion of how your work comes from being the story, from being inside it, which is true enough for you, as far as that road goes. But consider this as well: A story is an unmapped territory you have to discover on your own. The writer part of you knows the route, but the mind and consciousness are conspiracies of distraction, offering you alternate and often anomaly routes. You want and strive for focus. In a way, you know this when you take your laptop or notebook to a coffee shop, therein to force yourself to focus beyond the ambient noises and distractions.

The sharper the focus, the clearer and more distinct your narrative voice. No need to worry about story; you are the story. The missing element is the voice of your focus.


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Twenty-Cent Meatballs

While you lingered in the age where your future had more to do with wonder and amazement than doubt and acceptance, two of your favored places out of the classroom were the pool hall and the used bookstore.

You sought life affirming skills in each. Your role model in the first a chunky man in his early sixties who sported a boyish haircut, rumpled-but-expensive clothes, and an eye for the trajectories of the billiard table, that pocketless arena where the carom, bank shot, and applications of spin caused you endless speculations and fantasies wherein you owned a home in which there was such a table. Indeed, your ability to own a home with such a table in its recreation room was predicated on your ability to engage the pursuit of three-cushion billiards. Such skills at such a table would surely provide you with the skills and strategies of the storyteller you sought to become. 

The key to this fantasy was the appearance in it of some visitor to this make-believe home with its make-believe billiards table. A visitor who would shake his head at you, offer up a patronizing "Tch tch, boy. They done sold you a table with no pockets." Whereupon you would set up the three balls, present your cue to the object ball in such a way that it would cascade off three sides, then kiss the other two in a seamless display, to which you'd reply, "Don't need no pockets to play this game."

There were a few role models for the used bookstore venue. If you had to pick one, it would be the owner-manager of the one at the extreme northern end of La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. The magic of this place included the fact of an award to anyone who browsed its interiors for more than four hours. A card--no plastic or credit cards at the time--whose printed message proclaimed its value of one spaghetti dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. This owner-manager always wore a suit. Probably his only suit. Blue. Gabardine rather than serve. A red necktie. The owner-manager's face made owlish by large, horn rimmed glasses. His manner serious to the point of emphatic. He'd see you enter and he invariably pointed to a series of aisles toward the rear. "Fiction. Over there."  Knew his customers, he did.  Name of Sid.

The fiction was divided into types. Mystery. Science Fiction. Fantasy. Romance. Western. Historical. Mainstream. The largest of all these, and the cause for you remembering Sid after all these years and, indeed, the reason why you had so many spaghetti dinners at the nearby Italian restaurant--the largest division of all: Literary.  Time after time, Sid followed you, guided you to this section. In the greatest probability, Sid knew of your hopes of becoming a writer whose books would be shelved under the category Literary from information you'd let slip during earlier conversations.

In retrospect, you like the idea that Sid knew of your ambitions because of his prescience; he could sense it in you without the need to be told. Not that your books would ever end up in used bookshops. Your books would, once bough and read, become treasures to be kept. Forget that only a year or so ago, a friend found a book of yours at a used-book sale, a book inscribed to the then chairman of a department at a university wherein you taught.

Sid became a surrogate teacher, urging upon you books by authors he said you needed to read, were you ever to realize your dreams, the literary equivalent of being able to navigate the no-nonsense expanse of the billiard table. In a real sense, this was your first experience with genera. Before then, all fiction was a part of a glorious entirety.

When you were a student, you learned to distinguish the genera, almost as you learned to see how various racial and social groups had traits you would later learn were the stereotypes you needed to avoid if you were to see individuals for what they were rather than what they represented collectively.

In your earliest associations with editors and literary agents based in New York, you learned the better word for genera--category. "You write category fiction, do you?  What category do you write?"
You wanted to say "All." Indeed, through a series of pseudonyms, you did.

Personal finances--or their lack--and accident--one of the governing principals of your life--caused you to take up teaching in your early forties. You were pleased with yourself for your then observation that "all fiction is mystery fiction."

Some years later, your pleasure increased when you observed how "All fiction is speculative fiction because it is based on a what-if as related to a mystery."

Earlier this year, you observed to an editorial client, "All fiction is speculative, mystery-based, and that functional aspect of science fiction, the alternate universe." How pleased with yourself to recognize how each fiction is the author's own vision of this enormous elephant in whatever room we chose to inhabit.

When you tendered the free-spaghetti-dinner card from Sid to the waiter at the Italian restaurant the first time, you were told "You want meatballs, you gotta pay extra. Meatballs cost twenny cents each."

The first time you heard this, you knew only too well you barely had enough to cover a tip for the waiter and the twenty-five cents for a pack of Camels, having already spent two fifty on books at Sid's.  There is a price for everything.